Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

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Far from protecting the environment, mostrail transit lines use more energy per passengermile, and many generate more greenhouse gases,than the average passenger automobile. Railtransit provides no guarantee that a city will saveenergy or meet greenhouse gas targets.

While most rail transit uses less energy than buses,rail transit does not operate in a vacuum: transitagencies supplement it with extensive feeder busoperations. Those feeder buses tend to have low ridership,so they have high energy costs and greenhousegas emissions per passenger mile. The resultis that, when new rail transit lines open, the transitsystems as a whole can end up consuming moreenergy, per passenger mile, than they did before.

Even where rail transit operations save a littleenergy, the construction of rail transit lines consumeshuge amounts of energy and emits largevolumes of greenhouse gases. In most cases,many decades of energy savings would be neededto repay the energy cost of construction.

Rail transit attempts to improve the environmentby changing people’s behavior so that theydrive less. Such behavioral efforts have been farless successful than technical solutions to toxicair pollution and other environmental problemsassociated with automobiles.

Similarly, technical alternatives to rail transitcan do far more to reduce energy use and CO2outputs than rail transit, at a far lower cost. Suchalternatives include the following:

  • Powering buses with hybrid‐​electric motors,biofuels, and — where it comes from nonfossilfuel sources — electricity;
  • Concentrating bus service on heavily usedroutes and using smaller buses during offpeakperiods and in areas with low demandfor transit service;
  • Building new roads, using variable toll systems,and coordinating traffic signals torelieve the highway congestion that wastesnearly 3 billion gallons of fuel each year;
  • Encouraging people to purchase more fuel‐​efficientcars. Getting 1 percent of commutersto switch to hybrid‐​electric cars will cost lessand do more to save energy than getting 1 percentto switch to public transit.

If oil is truly scarce, rising prices will lead peopleto buy more fuel‐​efficient cars. But states andlocales that want to save even more energy andreduce greenhouse gas emissions will find theabove alternatives far superior to rail transit.